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In the beginning was the mushroom
Magic mushrooms and truffles grow everywhere in the world and their ritual and medicinal use dates back many millenia.
They grow wild in forests and on meadows, as well as in suburban backyards and camping grounds, wherever their spores land on fertile ground.
Their legal status first became a matter of debate when the swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized one of the psychotropic substances present in some of the psilocybe species and called it psilocybin.
Soon enough, the effects of mushrooms were put on a level with the effects of psilocybin, even though in mushrooms, various chemical compounds act together, pslocybin being only one of them.
Psilocybin, however, is extremely potent. How much will kill a human isn’t quite certain, since actually trying to see how much of it would kill a person isn’t ethically permissible. But the results of animal tests have been extrapolated and so the lethal dosis is estimated to be about 6g.
Tiny amounts such as 20mg are sufficient to elicit (under the right circumstances) so-called “mystical experiences” that can unveil deep truths about life, but at the same time, make everyday challenges and complex situations, such as traffic, difficult to master.
The UN convention of 1971
Probably the best known document related to psilocybin is the UN convention on Psychotropic Substances. This convention, signed by 183 countries, classifies psilocybin as a schedule I substance, tying its production and trade to special permission that’s nigh impossible to obtain.
Part of the reason for this restriction is the American war on drugs, famously declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, but more about that later.
Handling psilocybin outside of laboratory settings is extremely difficult, precisely because it’s so highly potent and sensitive to light. Hence, dosing it correctly is a matter of measuring correctly to the milligram
There’s also potential for abuse in psilocybin, as tiny amounts can be administered secretly, hidden in food or drink, rendering a person incapacitated for hours.
This is why pure psilocybin is suitable mainly for research and therapeutic administration through medically trained professionals.
The risk factors of psilocybin and those of magic mushrooms differ vastly.
Psilocybin does not rot and there’s no risk of picking the wrong species in the woods. It does not grow on your lawn and the probability of you accidentally mixing in a portion of psilocybin in your mushroom ragout is zero.
On the other hand, while psilocybin could be hidden in food and drinks, a mushroom floating in your beer would be a rather easy to spot, both visually and via its strong taste.
Their application in chemical warfare is equally unlikely, due to the same reasons that boil down to this: One cannot really administer them in any clandestine fashion, there is no real way to make people consume mushrooms without them noticing.
Also, one cannot eat so many mushrooms as reach the (suspected) lethal dosis of psilocybin. This is because the quantity of psilocybin in mushrooms is so low that it would take several kilos of mushrooms to reach the extrapolated 6g. Chewing and swallowing mushrooms requires a minimal degree of sobriety, but that decreases rapidly while eating.
This feature makes them, on top of being considered the safest drug, safer than most foods and drinks. Even drinking water in excess has the capacity to kill us, as it lacks this intriguing safety valve; eating magic mushrooms excessively may lead to extremely intense and possibly disturbing experiences, but the body loses its coordination necessary for eating mushrooms before ever coming near the potentially lethal hundreds of grams.
These vast differences in risk and abuse potential are precisely the reasons magic mushrooms and truffles are not included in the convention on psychotropic substances.
They’re a hard to tame, natural phenomenon that can benefit health. Hence, forbidding their consumption is rather like forbidding the breathing of healthy sea air.
So… mushrooms are supposed to be legal?
On the 4th of July 2001, a federal court judgement was made on the matter.
A company had imported and sold magic mushrooms and its director objected to the accusation of having broken the law on narcotics.
Narcotics affected by this law were neatly listed and in that list, magic mushrooms were NOT included. This occurred in Switzerland, where the first article of the penal law actually states that punishment may only be imposed for acts explicitly deemed chargeable by law.
The court made use of this opportunity to try and shed light on the future legal status of mushrooms, using the UN convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 as a guideline.
Since the convention clearly didn’t forbid mushrooms, neither would the Swiss government.
It was decided that mushrooms were not to be regarded by the law as drugs, but instead as food – with at least 80 varieties locally growing in the swiss forests, all rather difficult to tell apart and none to be classified “hard drugs” (in which case it would have been necessary to include them in the law).
Food. Not drugs.
Otherwise, they would of course be included in the schedule!
(Author’s note: Unfortunately, we’ve not found that source in english yet and for the time being will link to the german source.)
Afterthougts on psilocybin: The war on drugs
Richard Nixon famously declared the war on drugs in 1971. The same year, the United Nations issued the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which determined 4 schedules for drugs to be listed in, according to their assumed (not scientifically proven) harm potential.
Nixon’s primary focus was on Marijuana and he had appointed a commission tasked with finding out about its possible harm, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.
The Shafer commission soon presented their results as possible basis for an informed and scientifically sound drug policy, stating that there was no evidence for Marijuana causing physical or mental abnormalities, making the user more prone to violent behavior, acting as a gateway-drug, constituting a danger to public safety, or any of the bad effects the president had hoped for. (Full list here)
Regardless of these findings, President Nixon temporarily placed Marijuana in Schedule I, making it absolutely off-limits to virtually everyone, increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and let there be no doubt that he really, regardless of whatever “facts” scientists might come up with, wanted an all-out war on Marijuana.
Though in fact, banning Marijuana was a means to an end that John Erlichman, Nixon’s chief adviser on domestic affairs revealed to reporter Dan Baum in 1994:
“You want to know what this was really all about? (…) The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/
The Nixon White House tapes from 1971-1972 demonstrate that the foundation of the modern war on marijuana was in fact a grab-bag of paranoia and prejudices held by Richard Nixon, as for example:
“every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”Oval Office Tape, May 26, 1971 — Oval Office Conversation: 505-4
“You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us.”Oval Office Tape, May 13, 1971, between 10:32am and 12:20pm –Oval Office Conversation 498-5
Since a few years before, the discovery of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms and the subsequent scientific research in the field of psychedelics had had considerable influence on the development of the counterculture. So there was the “antiwar left”, as Ehrlichman later called it, deriving personal spiritual insight from the use of psychedelics and opposing the Vietnam War.
That hadn’t always been the government’s sole angle on the matter, as in 1953 it had officially sanctioned the CIA project MKULTRA, a program that, among other things, aimed to figure out whether there was military potential for mind control in psychedelics. Hopes were, that under the influence of drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, torture, or combinations of any of these, techniques could be developed to bypass the free will of any given subject.
But the project was halted and most files were destroyed in 1973. What remains and is declassified can be viewed at The Black Vault.
So, according to the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 psilocybin is currently a so-called “Schedule I” drug and is part of a list of substances with no medical potential and high risk of dependence and abuse. While researchers of the Johns Hopkins university have questioned that categorization, due to its low risk for abuse, apparent medical value and lack of potential to create dependence, there’s another disputed point to this argumentation waiting to be clarified:
How come so few see the difference between a pure chemical substance and a living fungus?
Since magic mushrooms have been used for millennia for spiritual and medical purposes, the roots of their relationship with humanity run deep. The ban on Psilocybin in the 1970ies slowly but surely sucked the magic mushrooms into a vortex of legal ambiguity – even though they were explicitly excluded from the prohibition. Fake news and unlawful, unscientific categorization as “pretty much the same as psilocybin” made them notorious.
Natural sources of psilocybin, such as truffles and mushrooms, are living organisms and therefore cannot, according to these judgements, be considered to be the same as the chemically refined, or synthetically created substance.
It’s sometimes argued that the specific listing of psilocybin-containing fungi in Schedule I is merely an overlooked formality and that of course as one substance is banned, so all natural sources thereof.
But this exception in the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances is by no means a random blooper.
The human rights convention states in Article 9:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
Since an arrest cannot be arbitrary, neither can anyone come to possess drugs without their knowledge, simply because they grow on their lawn.
Considering their natural occurrence, which is everywhere, since Psilocybin mushrooms occur on all continents, a public debate on the distinction between naturally growing organisms and chemicals refined in a laboratory is overdue. Thus far, the highest authority statements are the above mentioned judgements of the high court of Switzerland and of the Netherlands.
There is, last but not least, another sign that mushrooms are intentionally not included in Schedule I, and not left out, out of forgetfulness; In most states of North America, and even Russia and Japan, the spores, which do not contain any of the listed substances, are legal.
A public health and social problem?
Interestingly, even according to the UNO convention of 1971, substances controlled must have the capacity to produce either a state of dependence or similar abuse and ill effects as a substance in Schedule I in order to be declared subject to Schedule I regulations.
(On the process of classifying substances in the controlled substances act of 1971, it should be noted that the potential for abuse is an undefined term.)
But for example in the review The pharmacology of psilocybin (2007), there’s a definite statement concerning the question of dependence:
“Even though significant tolerance is known to occur with the repeated use of psilocybin, physical dependence does not occur.”
So then there is the question of abuse and ill effects concerning psilocybin.
A study on the relationship between psilocybin, psychological distress and suicidality showed, that its use is associated with:
significantly reduced odds of past month psychological distress,
past year suicidal thinking,
past year suicidal planning and
past year suicide attempt.
Yet another study implies that lifetime illicit use of other drugs (e.g. other than classic psychedelics was largely associated with increased likelihood of these outcomes.
Needless to say, these findings do not go well with the claim that the ill effects of psilocybin are so great the substance must be banned even from medical use, since distress and suicidal tendencies are generally considered undesirable and very much worth treating.
In conclusion, it seems that the medical potential and relative safety of psilocybin do not match with the legal status of the substance. If you’re interested in how it came to pass that magic mushrooms earned a reputation as unpredictable and potentially harmful, there’s a short history of their ostracism in europe here.